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UConn men shake off slow start, rally past Colorado

Des Moines, Iowa — UConn entered the locker room at halftime an angry bunch.

"Not just coach (Kevin) Ollie, everybody was upset," Shonn Miller said. "We weren't playing well."

There was plenty to be upset about.

Basically, the Huskies lacked the same intensity and execution that earned them an NCAA tournament automatic berth. They trailed by nine at the break.

They refocused and channeled their anger into energy in the second half, rallying past eighth-seeded Colorado 74-67 in a South Region first-round game at Wells Fargo Arena.

"They really played hard," Ollie said. "I don't know if they got their wake-up call in the first half. I think they were still back at the hotel, but I think the bus came and picked 'em up and we started playing in the second half."

Ninth-seeded UConn (25-10) advanced to play top-seeded Kansas, a 105-79 runaway winner over No 16 Austin Peay, Saturday in second-round play at approximately 7:45 p.m.

Redshirt junior Rodney Purvis and sophomore Daniel Hamilton fueled the charge for UConn, scoring 19 and 17 points, respectively. Sterling Gibbs added 12 points, including sinking six straight clutch free throws in the last 42 seconds to seal the victory. The Huskies, the nation's leading free throw shooting team, went 22-for-23 from the line.

Gibbs also gave a halftime pep talk to his teammates.

"Just knowing we've been in that same position against Cincinnati and we came back ... so I knew it was definitely possible," Gibbs said. "It wasn't anything new to us. At the same time, someone had to speak up and get the team settled down. I was just able to do that."

UConn trailed Cincinnati by the same score (36-27) in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals last week as it did to Colorado. The Huskies didn't need four overtimes to complete the comeback on Thursday.

A completely different, more determined team took the court in the second half. The Huskies did everything better, turning around the rebounding deficit (20-15) and winning the battle of the boards (36-33). They attacked on offense and cranked up the defensive intensity, rattling the Buffaloes, who cooled off, shooting just 40 percent after converting 50 percent before halftime. Only powerful forward Josh Scott (23 points, 11 rebounds) was a handful.

"We just came out with a sense of urgency," Gibbs said. "We knew it was do or die. That kind of just brings the best out of us."

Gibbs handed UConn its first lead of the game by burying a 3-pointer with 11 minutes, 34 seconds remaining. The surging Huskies were in the midst of 24-6 run that turned a 42-33 deficit into a 57-48 lead. Hamilton and Purvis both converted turnovers into baskets about 10 seconds apart, combining for 17 points during the decisive spurt.

"I think getting defensive stops is what got us back in the game," Purvis said.

The Huskies survived some shaky moments down the stretch after watching a nine-point lead (66-53) slip to three in just over two minutes.

In a crazy sequence with UConn clinging to a 66-63 lead, Gibbs turned the ball over and then got it back with a steal. He drained six free throws and Purvis added a pair from the line in the last 42 seconds.

UConn returned to the locker room a much happier bunch than the one that left at halftime.

Ollie loved his team's response, composure and fight.

"I don't like going into the locker room down by nine," Ollie said. "But I know how tough this team is and they don't make excuses. So we came out in the second half and started playing UConn basketball and started getting stop and getting fast break points and started playing together."

g.keefe@theday.com

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